Last year, I finished this grueling course in 10 hours and 32 minutes. I was completely exhausted, could barely talk or breathe, let alone stand up on my own volition. My body, face and even my eyelids were covered in dirt. It was by far, the toughest thing I’d ever done on a bike. So, what do I do? Sign up again!
I know, crazy. Most people wouldn’t think of it, let alone put the time and effort in it takes to actually do the race. The Leadville Trail 100 is commonly referred to as the “Race Across the Sky” because it all takes place 9,400 feet above sea level and higher. This race, however, not only begins at 10,200 feet over the ocean, but takes you up and down so much that you wind up climbing over 12,000 total feet in elevation. The longest and toughest climb of the day is Columbine. It begins at 9,400ft and finishes at 12,400ft. The air is thin for everyone up there. While it’s only steep in parts, your lungs, your energy and most of your basic faculties feel zapped.
Last year, my wife and two of our dear friends, Craig and Anna, supported me during the race. They made me feel like a champ. They were at every aid station ready to refuel my body with all the right carbs, fluids, hydration and chain lube one guy could ask for! Even though Craig had a few moments of doubt, he was hooked and decided he was going to do the race this year.
Our Leadville Family grows! Thanks to Craig and Anna, we had a house full of 8 including 4 racers and 4 crew members. Since it’s a relatively small community of people who put themselves through this kind of suffering, we know a bunch of other racers and crew members. It’s always great to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in a year, check in and see if they’re all staying in tip top shape.
There are a few people who do Leadville and compete to win, but 98 or even 99% of us ride to compete with ourselves, compete with our friends, or simply to prove to ourselves that we can push through the limits of our mind and persevere. I, for one, get excited about creating opportunities where I’m forced to work hard and push through those voices that tell me to stop, tell me I’m tired, and tell me I should rest.
The mind is an incredibly powerful thing and left unchecked it may have it’s way with us. And that might not be as positive and supportive as we would like. I check my own mind by training and racing, by heading to the hills and the mountains, climbing up and cruising down. I love breathing the fresh air of nature and soaking up the sounds, sights and energy of the mountains.
This year my race at Leadville began similar to last year. It was 43 degrees instead of a chilly 38 last year. I made it up the first major climb pretty well and then the second. Then down Powerline, which is one of the toughest, most technical descents of any mountain bike race. It’s fast and furious. There are people on the side of the trail with flat tires, mechanical problems and nursing injuries from crashes. You definitely have to keep your head on straight to get down this hill as fast as possible. The famed Columbine climb was next. I knew it would be tough and started my way up. Just under 2 hours of nonstop climbing, in elevation. So, you can barely breathe, you have to keep pedaling, except of course when it’s so steep that most people have unclipped and are hiking their bikes uphill. But at that point, it’s a welcomed rest for your tush.
The main differences from last year to this year are 1. a new bike; 2. more experience on the course; 3. better training; and 4. a new diet. This year I moved to burning fat as fuel instead of carbohydrates. Most people are drinking their calories and taking in gel packs, eating waffles, oatmeal, and other carb intensive foods. After I found out I was insulin resistant, I got off the carbs and went on a low carb, higher fat, moderate protein diet. It’s essentially paleo. I eat mostly veggies and salad, but eggs in the mornings and the occasional fish. It took a few weeks to adjust, but I’ve been taking this new diet and running with it. Or this time, cycling with it. During the race, I tap off my carbohydrate stores by eating a quarter of a bar every hour or one half of a gel every hour. Far less calories and sugar than last year.
The race is out and back, so once you get to the top of the Columbine climb, you’ve got 10 miles of down hill, then 44 miles to the finish, with some varied climbing. The toughest climb on the way back is Powerline, that intense decent you came down on the way out. Going back up that was the second toughest climb, but for some people they suffer so much that they have to stop, sit down, and massage cramps. It’s carnage out there!
But somehow, some way, riders dig deep into their souls and they push through the doubt. The body is an amazing machine and it can typically do way more than we think it can. I’ve watched veterans with one leg cross the finish line. I’ve seen people of all shapes and sizes cross that finish line. Not everyone reaches their goal, but they give it their best and they learn so much about themselves along the way.
When people push beyond their limits and commit to the dedication it takes to train and to race, the human spirit shines. Some people race for their loved ones, some people race for themselves. My wife is currently pregnant and during the race I had the thought that I was racing to make my child proud. You become such a raw nerve out there, it’s quite an experience.
But without the support of my wife, Rami, Anna, and Beau, there is no way I could’ve done the race. The moral support is a key ingredient to helping push through the thoughts when you’re deep in the “pain cave” suffering on a climb. I knew my friends and family were waiting for me at the finish line. And this year, my wife and I crossed the finish line hand in hand! Thanks to the dedication, commitment and support, I persevered again. This year I finished 48 minutes faster than last year and I didn’t feel nearly as exhausted. Another epic journey in the books. See you on the trails! Or on twitter @teddymcdonald
Photo Credit: teddymcdonald.com